05/16/2008 03:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gonna Reap Just What You Sow

We videotaped Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (Pete Seeger's grandson) singing this Appalachian gospel song at an event I participated in a couple months ago in Beacon, NY. The song fit well with the theme of the event--about the need for people of conscience in government. (See how that ethics teacher sitting in the background got so excited?) But it was only in listening to the song later, that I realized how well it also fit with my ongoing ethics arguments about the fallacy of the utilitarian debate about torture.

Lying, stealing, warring ...and torturing. Kantian (principle-based) ethicists say these things are wrong--plain wrong--end of discussion--don't do them.

The group of utilitarian "ethicists" who argue the need to do these things will almost always cover themselves by partially agreeing with the Kantians that these methods are bad. As to torture, for instance, even its proponents say they find it personally repulsive. (That's why, in fact, they prefer to hire or have others do the dirty work.) But they argue that the greater good is what's most important. And most people accept the idea of doing a little evil to obtain a greater good.

So IF one finds oneself in the (rare) ticking time bomb situation, and IF one has the guy who knows where the bomb is, and IF this information can be gained more quickly and effectively from this guy by torture than other means, and IF the bomb can then be defused in time to save innocent lives, than torture, repulsive as it may be, is justified. "Act utilitarians" believe, moreover, that the ends justify the means with respect to a particular, isolated act of their own construction. This rhetorical device allows them to blithely ignore the body of existing empirical data showing torture "doesn't work" obtained through scientific, factual study (as that, for instance, contained in Darius Rejali's 880 page tome: Torture and Democracy). You'd think, wouldn't you, that Dr. Rejali's scholarly book would be required reading for those truly committed to obtaining the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Not so (since they put more stock in the exception to the rule). This willful blindness leads to doing not "a little evil" but "a lot evil" and makes them especially apt to "win the battle but lose the war". For that reason, act utilitarianism has long been discredited in ethics texts in favor of what's called "rule utilitarianism".

"Rule utilitarianism" is, to be sure, an extremely complicated business but the far more valid endeavor for persons genuinely seeking the greatest ultimate good. It requires that actual, empirical data be assessed and that the longer-term, blow-back consequences and lost opportunity costs be factored in. Start with the daunting task of gauging built-in premises like the four big "IFs" contained in the "ticking time bomb" or similar hypothetical. These alone prove impossible or nearly impossible for the mere mortal to figure out. It's too bad I can't share the academic paper of a PhD husband-wife team on "Arrest and interrogation as tools for extracting information: a cost-benefit analysis using game theory" that I heard them present at a recent intelligence-ethics conference. The equation they arrived at is perhaps the most comprehensive (and therefore "rule utilitarian" type) attempt thus far made to derive a formula encompassing all the factors and considerations involved, but be forewarned that its complexity in any given situation would make Einstein's head spin if he were still alive.

So it's not surprising that most, if not all, of the complicated aspects of real utilitarianism just disappear as a practical matter from the debate by torture proponents. Rather than what the PhDs suggest to analyze any real situation to obtain truthful information, it's much easier to do what fiction writers do for the TV show "24"--make it up. Constructing a favorable outcome of "lives saved", allows the simplistic type of utilitarian to then rationalize backward, jumping over all the premises that the favorable outcome depended on. John Yoo was especially good at making this real simple. His rationale was that if government agents were not torturing someone out of malice or vengeance but were well-intentioned in their seeking of intelligence and belief in a ticking time bomb or second wave of attacks, than it was OK.

But can someone ever be considered well intentioned, if their notions came about as the result of watching too much TV? If physical evidence (tapes) have to be destroyed and "noble lies" told--remember all the "we don't torture" ones?

So while ethics texts often cite the debate about torture as an illustration of the classic differences in Kantian and utilitarian thinking, the debate is really a false one. What many of us have tried to tell folks who will listen, is that torture is wrong, not because there are so many laws against it. There are so many laws against it, because it is just plain wrong. Like finding out that you can't "save the village by bombing it", real utilitarians have found, time and again, that the use of torture is counterproductive to obtaining reliable intelligence.

Galatians 6:7
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.

Which brings us back, full circle, to the wisdom in Tao's country gospel song based on a Bible passage. The heading of Galatians 6, by the way, in the version of the Bible that I'm looking at, summarizes the chapter as: Doing Good to All. Folks who recently attended Nobel Peace laureate Reverend Desmond Tutu's speech in Minneapolis will recall his ten minute-long insistence on that important word "all". Various forms of the inverse "do no harm" and the Golden Rule to treat one's neighbors as yourself can be found in all mainstream religions.

So it seems people since ancient times--undoubtedly including Kant himself--have recognized that it's foolhardy to deceive themselves otherwise. Could it be then that certain immutable laws of nature (and/or of God--the Kantian principles), are actually NOT very different than what the true utilitarians have learned in seeking the "greatest good"?

I obviously got a little too excited about all these ethical implications when Tao was singing. The thought occurred to me that someday I'd like to write a book and blame all the mistakes since 9-11 on the act utilitarians. But it would be hard for any book, no matter how well-written, to improve on the "Gonna Reap Just What You Sow" song. Tao, by the way, will be singing it again at our "Peace Island Picnic" on September 4th, just across the muddy Mississippi from the RNC in St. Paul, the same day they plan to anoint John McCain. Let's hope all the utilitarians on the other side of the river can hear us on the refrain!